In kicking off an article about amateur detectives of yore, most of whom just happen to be married, the obvious opener would a play on the phrase “’til death do us part.” Since I’m not clever enough to come up with anything I’ll invite the reader to insert their own. In any event, here are a few great couples from way on back. Some are best known for their appearances in fiction while others are remembered for their time spent on the big screen.
Tommy & Tuppence: Chronologically speaking I suppose you’d have to start this list with Agatha Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence (Thomas and Prudence Beresford), though perhaps there were other crime-solving couples who predated them. Starting with The Secret Adversary in 1922 (supposedly the first Christie work to be filmed, six years later), they appeared in a total of five novels and a story collection over the next half century. Unlike so many ageless fictional series characters they actually grew older in these successive appearances.
Nick & Nora Charles: One of the great crime-solving couples of all time, Nick and Nora Charles got their start in a 1934 novel by Dashiell Hammett, which made its way to the big screen the same year. The duo were portrayed by William Powell and Myrna Loy (above), who came back for five more installments, the last of which appeared in 1947. Various radio, TV, and stage adaptations followed and a remake starring Johnny Depp has been rumored for a while now.
Powell fans who can’t get enough of his Nick Charles persona would be advised to seek out The Ex-Mrs. Bradford (1936), in which Mr. Bradford (Powell) teams up with his ex-wife (Jean Arthur) to solve a murder. Two years before The Thin Man, in 1932, Powell starred as a character known as The Robber and Kay Francis as his love interest in Jewel Robbery, a comic crime caper that was something of a harbinger of things to come.
Hildegarde Withers & Oscar Piper: I like Nick and Nora as much as the next guy but for my money one of the great crime-solving couples was that of Hildegarde Withers and Oscar Piper. They appeared in a bunch of books by Stuart Palmer and made it to the big screen in a total of six films between 1932 and 1937. The first three of these, which starred Edna May Oliver as the aging schoolteacher who puts up with no nonsense from anyone, are arguably the best. James Gleason played the role of Piper in all six installments and though Withers never wasted an opportunity to let the slightly dim-witted police inspector have it, the pair eventually become an item.
Melsa Manton & Peter Ames: Only the most knowledgeable film buffs are likely to recognize those names, but the actors who portrayed them are considerably more well-known. Henry Fonda played newspaper editor Ames while Barbara Stanwyck took on the role of the debutante who works with him (and marries him) and a number of her hoity-toity friends to solve crimes.
Garda & Joel Sloane: Was the resemblance to Nick and Nora intentional? Probably, given that the Sloanes first hit the big screen just four years after The Thin Man. The rare book dealers cracked cases in a trio of movies that came out in 1938 and 1939—Fast Company, Fast and Loose, and Fast and Furious. Interestingly enough, a different pair of actors played the main roles in each movie. I haven’t seen the last one but if you’re only going to watch one of the others, go with Fast Company, which finds Melvyn Douglas and Florence Rice in fine form.
Douglas was treading the same ground, also in 1938, when he stared with Joan Blondell in There’s Always A Woman. He’s Bill Reardon, a private detective, and she’s Sally Reardon, who ends up taking on one of his cases, with both of them trying to solve it independently. Sounds good, to be sure, but for me it lacked the zing of Fast Company.
Pam & Jerry North: How about a mystery-solving married couple written by a married couple? There may be others but one of the best known are probably Mr. and Mrs. North, who appeared in 26 books by Frances and Richard Lockridge. The upscale amateur detectives only made their way to the big screen once but also appeared in a number of radio and TV series and on Broadway.
Read all of William I. Lengeman III’s posts for Criminal Element.